Monday 26 August 2019

Cori Gauff: the 15-year-old schooling tennis royalty

Venus Williams (left) congratulates Cori Gauff after her victory. Photo: Getty
Venus Williams (left) congratulates Cori Gauff after her victory. Photo: Getty

Claire Cohen

'What a day," Cori Gauff posted on Twitter on Monday night, alongside a sleeping-face emoji.

Any other 15-year-old schoolgirl might have been talking about the end of their exams, the whirlwind of prom night or a particularly trying sports day. Which, in a way, Cori - who goes by the nickname 'Coco' - was.

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On the first day of Wimbledon 2019, the American teenager achieved the unthinkable: beating five-time champion Venus Williams in straight sets, 6-4 6-4.

It was the ultimate battle of the generations. Williams, at 39, a whopping 24 years her senior, had won four Grand Slams before her opponent was born. Little wonder the joke going round the SW19 grounds this week was that it was a "40-15" match.

So who is Cori 'Coco' Gauff - the youngest player to qualify for Wimbledon's main draw in the Open Era?

Perhaps the first thing to note is her sporting pedigree. Her father and coach Corey, after whom she is named, played basketball at Georgia State University. Her mother, Candi, who is responsible for her daughter's homeschooling, was a gymnast and Florida athletics star.

Cori was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2004 and attended her first tennis camp aged six, where she played using an oversized racket and foam ball.

"She took to it," her father has said, "she liked the skirts". More insightfully, he added, "one thing we noticed was that she had a unique ability to actually concentrate for 15 to 20 minutes".

The family moved to Florida when Cori was seven to pursue her tennis dream. It wasn't long before the youngster started racking up victories.

In 2012, she won the 'Little Mo' Under-8 Nationals. In 2014, she took the USTA Clay Court National Under-12 title aged just 10 years and three months - the youngest champion in history.

The junior Grand Slams beckoned. In 2017, she made the US Open girls' final - the youngest player ever to do so. Then, last June, she defeated 17-year-old fellow American Caty McNally to become the French Open girl's champion - despite having been the youngest player in the draw.

She rounded off 2018 by winning the prestigious Under-18s Orange Bowl tournament, previous holders of which include Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati - they went on to win 34 Slams between them.

But it was the Williams sisters who Gauff has said inspired her to pick up a racket in the first place. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her," she said in the wake of her victory over Venus.

As Venus congratulated her on court, it was noticeable that Gauff held on to her hand longer than is customary. "I was just telling her thank you for everything she's done for the sport," she said later. "I met her before, but I didn't really have the guts to say anything. I mean, now or never."

There are clear similarities between the two: from the teenager's ability to chase down every ball to their height - Gauff is already 5ft 9in to Venus's 6ft 1in and still growing. Both are right-handed, with a double-handed backhand, and have unusually long arms. Williams's reach is 1.85m, while Gauff has noted her own "weird wingspan".

Yet, before Monday, Gauff's contact with either Williams had been limited.

She was Venus's hitting partner for the US Fed Cup last year and has trained with Serena's coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, at his academy in the south of France.

Last October, she was stunned to be approached by Serena - herself nicknamed 'Goat', or 'Greatest of All Time'. "Ya'll, I was practising and Serena Williams came and said hi to me," she wrote on Instagram. "I see someone who looks like her coming towards me and I'm like is that the real Serena or a stunt double?"

How much has changed in just a few months.

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